Banshee Myths and Legends


Banshees are among the oldest ancestral spirits of the Fairy world in Irish folklore, and associated with the country as strongly as Leprechauns, shamrocks and potatoes. Also known as Bean-Sidhe, these Banshees were appointed to forewarn members of Irish families of impending death. The Banshee does not cry for just anyone. She is a solitary creature who loves the mortal family she is connected to. Fiercely loyal to her family’s members, and never forgetting her blood ties, she will follow them anywhere in the world.

In olden times a Banshee would be seen washing human heads, limbs or bloody clothing until the water was dyed with blood. Over the centuries this legend changed, and the Banshee is now said to pace the land, wringing her hands and crying. To hear a Banshee in the act of keening is to have witnessed the announcement of the death of a loved one.

According to legend that stretches back for more than a thousand years, each Banshee mourns for members of one family. Some say only the five oldest families have their own Banshees: the O’Neil’s, O’Brien’s, O’Grady’s, O’Connor’s and Cavanaugh’s.

Descriptions of the Banshee vary, but she appears in one of three guises representing the triple Goddess’s aspects: young woman, stately matron, or old hag.

  • As the first, she is a beautiful young woman, with red-gold hair, a green kirtle and scarlet mantle; the traditional dress of Ireland

  • As a matron, she is said to be tall and striking, contrasting sharply with the dark night. Pale and thin, her eyes red from centuries of crying, she possesses silver-grey hair streaming all the way down to the ground, and wears a thin, grey-white cloak, which clings to her body

  • As the hag, she usually wears grey hooded cloaks, or the grave robe of the dead. She may also appear as a washer-woman, or be covered in a dark, mist-like cloak

Aibhill – King Brian Boru

Although there are many famous tales of the Banshee, one well known one dates back to 1014 AD, about a Banshee attached to the kingly house of O’Brien, who haunted the rock of Craglea above Killaloe. Legend has it that Aibhill the Banshee appeared to the aged King Brian Boru before the battle of Clontard, which was fought the same year.

Lady Fanshaw’s Banshee

One of the most notorious tales of a Banshee comes from the memoirs of Lady Fanshaw. Along with her husband she visited a friend in an ancient baronial castle surrounded by a moat. She was woken at midnight by a ghastly supernatural scream, which caused her to sit upright in bed. She looked towards the window and recounts that she saw a handsome young woman hovering outside her window in the moonlight. The woman was pale and dishevelled with loose red hair and was wearing a dress in the style of the ancient Irish. The vision stayed for a short while before disappearing with two load shrieks.
When morning came and she had relayed the event to her friend, she was told that she had seen the family Banshee. This Banshee was the ghost of a woman of inferior rank who had married one of his ancestors, but he had drowned her in the moat to atone for the shame he had brought on his family. She had come that night, as she always did, to announce a death in the family – one of his relations had passed away in her sleep.
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